Open Thread: Favorite Story of 2008

Best holiday wishes to all, and thanks to readers for your continued interest and insightful comments.

In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d post my favorite news item of the year almost past and encourage members of the commentariat (to use one reader’s coinage) to provide theirs. The post below originally ran in March:

This is such a good story that I decided it deserved its own slot, rather than being featured in links.

Dolphins haven’t been studied as intensively as monkeys, but there is ample anecdotal evidence, and some research, suggesting that they approach humans in intelligence (one philosopher, having surveyed the literature, argued that they are “non-human persons”). Dolphins are the only non-human species known to form ad hoc groups across established social lines to perform specific tasks and to seek out humans out of what appears to be curiosity.

One incident: two dolphins in a research program did routines for the public. The first would do a sonar demonstration, blindfolded; the second did a program made of tricks she had invented.

One day both dolphins, each in its holding tank, were very agitated. During their performances, the sonar dolphin was hesitant and the one who did the tricks did them out of order. The researchers later found they had mixed the dolphins up. Each dolphin understood that it was expected to execute the other’s program and did it as well as she could.

I wish I had employees that had that much sense.

From the BBC:

A dolphin has come to the rescue of two whales which had become stranded on a beach in New Zealand.

Conservation officer Malcolm Smith told the BBC that he and a group of other people had tried in vain for an hour and a half to get the whales to sea.

The pygmy sperm whales had repeatedly beached, and both they and the humans were tired and set to give up, he said.

But then the dolphin appeared, communicated with the whales, and led them to safety.

The bottlenose dolphin, called Moko by local residents, is well known for playing with swimmers off Mahia beach on the east coast of the North Island.

Mr Smith said that just when his team was flagging, the dolphin showed up and made straight for them.

“I don’t speak whale and I don’t speak dolphin,” Mr Smith told the BBC, “but there was obviously something that went on because the two whales changed their attitude from being quite distressed to following the dolphin quite willingly and directly along the beach and straight out to sea.”

He added: “The dolphin did what we had failed to do. It was all over in a matter of minutes.”

Mr Smith said he felt fortunate to have witnessed the extraordinary event, and was delighted for the whales, as in the past he has had to put down animals which have become beached.

He said that the whales have not been seen since, but that the dolphin had returned to its usual practice of playing with swimmers in the bay.

“I shouldn’t do this I know, we are meant to remain scientific,” Mr Smith said, “but I actually went into the water with the dolphin and gave it a pat afterwards because she really did save the day.”

That’s a picture of Moko, not a stock photo. The BBC also has a little video (BBC videos always crash my browsers, but I suspect it’s worth watching). And there’s a more detailed version of the story here.

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  1. CrocodileChuck

    Moko to succeed Bernanke as Head of the Fed!


    ps Happy holidays to all on a gorgeous, sunny, Christmas evening (Eastern Australia version)

  2. pepster

    One of my favorite stories from this past year was of the whales (I think) in New Zealand who couldn’t get out of an enclosed area, and kept beaching themselves while trying to do so. Then along comes a dolphin or porpoise who leads them to safety. If I remember correctly, I believe this dolphin or porpoise was a regular visitor to the area too. Very nice and uplifting story.

    Merry Christmas to you Yves and to everybody else who contributes to this fine blog: Richard Kline, FairEconomist, ndk, Lune, doc holiday, and the many others who who post regularly with insightful comments. Happy holidays and best wishes to everybody for a great 2009.

  3. Dave Raithel

    Once upon a time, I read some Alfred North Whitehead. What I got from him was this: Consciousness is a contuum.

    Best to you, Ms. Smith, I’ve learned so much here. Lately I’ve not commented much, as there are so many other more “comfortable” speakers in control of the vocabulary who, between them, make the points I bite at the end of my tongue. Lately I’ve been working my way through some papers by James Crotty, who makes an effort to connect Marx and Keynes and Schumpter and Minksy – they are after all, why I first stumbled into this place. All that and whatever, thanks, sincerely …

  4. Jojo

    There’s a whole slew of great science stories here:

    In the spirit of animals, I like this one:

    Spain Gives Great Apes Legal Rights

    The animals have the right to life and protection from harmful research practices.
    by Apoorva Mandavilli
    published online December 10, 2008

    On June 25 the Spanish Parliament’s environmental committee approved a resolution to grant legal rights to great apes, covering chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. The resolution, expected to be enacted into law by June 2009, gives great apes the right to life and protects them from harmful research practices and exploitation for profit, such as use in films, commercials, and circuses.

    “This is an important historical step,” says Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and cofounder of the Great Ape Project. Since 1993, when Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri established the group, its members have advocated for a United Nations declaration that great apes, like humans, are entitled to life, liberty, and protection from torture.
    advertisement | article continues below

    The great apes’ ability to use language and tools, to feel pain, and to form lasting relationships with others is evidence, the Great Ape Project maintains, that apes are part of a “community of equals” with humans. “This decision is the first step to recognizing that the gulf between human and nonhuman animals is not absolute but a matter of degree,” Singer says. “I do hope it helps people look differently at their relationship with nonhuman animals.”

    The resolution also calls for the Spanish government to promote a similar declaration throughout the European Union. Singer notes that the Netherlands, Britain, and countries in Scandinavia have already taken steps to phase out research harmful to great apes.

  5. tenletters

    The ongoing discover regarding Homo floresiensis, AKA the “hobbit”.

    These little guys may very well have lived up until historic times.

    It’s looking more and more as though existing humans are the descendants of one small sub-grouping among a wide diversity of hominids. The not-so-nice back story is that we likely led to the demise of our extinct cousins in the same way that we finished off the woolly mammoths and giant sloth, by killing and eating them.

  6. Dan

    My favorite kind of story — the “animals are people too” story! I had a great experience with dolphins that made me realize how smart and, well, interesting they are.

    On Roatan, Honduras, ten years ago at least there was an institute that studied dolphins and also had them do shows. I was kayaking, and came across a giant pen where they kept the dolphins, at least 100×200 yards. I had snorkel gear, so went up to the net to look for the dolphins. Not only did they come by and check me out, they seemed to want their noses and bellies rubbed, which I did through the net. Now, dolphins are notoriously horny, right? So of course while the big one pushed his belly against the net, I saw he had an erection. OK, fine, thank god for the net. But the interesting thing is the two dolphins then proceeded to have sex *right in front of me*, like five or six feet from the net. This was clearly done for my benefit — they had this giant pen after all. So, not only are they smart enough to rescue a whale, they’re mischievous enough to be exhibitionists.

  7. ozajh

    To me the most intriguing ‘animal intelligence’ story of the year was a documentary on cuttlefish reearch.

    Firstly, because (assuming current evolutionary theories are correct) they are far, far more distantly related to ourselves than dolphins, let alone apes.

    Secondly, and somewhat sadly, because their intelligence seems to occur within the context of a very short lifespan, since they appear to be a single-mating-cycle species (like salmon).

    I was reminded somewhat of a Harry Turtledove book (“A Different Flesh”, IIRC) where one of the basic plot points was the discovery of an alien species with roughly the same basic intelligence as humanity, but where one sex had a similar lifespan to ourselves but the other sex had a lifespan which was very much shorter.

    I couldn’t help wondering what a cuttlefish, with it’s superior manipulative ability compared to a dolphin via it’s tentacles, could be trained (educated??) to do given the same amount of time. Conceivably the most intelligent species on Earth outside ourselves isn’t even mammalian.

  8. Uncle Billy, Dolphin Free

    re honduran dolphins: I just ate a rofl waffle.


    One possible immediate solution to our problems is to jump in the ocean. The dolphins will form a protective ring around us and keep the sharks away.

  9. Anonymous

    Given that there are apparently so many moderately intelligent species on Earth right now, and given the fact that a priori there seems to be nothing biologically or genetically unique about our modern era, it seems surprising that no prior intelligent species comparable to humans has ever evolved on Earth.

    After all, if the current bunch (great apes, dolphins, perhaps some species of crows and parrots and octopi) is a historically typical assortment of moderately intelligent fauna, you’d have to wonder why, over the course of several hundred million years, there has never been any other “farm team” species that made the final push to the big leagues, achieving at least fire/language/hunter-gathering, perhaps even agriculture.

    Or has there? Can we be absoluely sure? After all, if some hypothetical velociraptor civilization 75 million years ago lasted for a mere few thousand years, what artifacts would they have left behind that would survive to the present day? Plate tectonics, erosion and weathering, sedimentation, supervolcanos, ice ages (repetitive cycles of continent-wide glaciers scouring everything in their path), long-term cycles of climate change (deserts turning into rain forests)… buildings or cities and everything else would be wiped clean in mere tens of thousands of years or less, let alone dozens of millions of years.

    I don’t actually believe in any such thing, but it’s an interesting question: can we definitively rule it out?

    To put it another way, if we vanished tomorrow, what evidence would survive a hundred million years that would enable future scientists to deduce our existence? I can’t think of anything other than the Moon landing sites. Or perhaps some industrial artifacts… but what if a civilization like the Mayas ended before having an industrial revolution?

    Perhaps the only truly indelible long-term impact we’ll have will be the great extinction of species that is taking place now, on par with the four or five prior ones in the fossil record. But prudent scientists of the far future would undoubtedly ascribe it to some unknown natural cause.

  10. Jojo

    @Anonymous at 4:00AM asked “To put it another way, if we vanished tomorrow, what evidence would survive a hundred million years that would enable future scientists to deduce our existence? I can’t think of anything other than the Moon landing sites.”

    One that came to my mind quickly was our nuclear wastes from power plants. That would be a sure indicator of an advanced civilization. Any non-natural U-238, U-235 or P-244 seem to have very long half-lives that might be valuable to a future archaeologist.

    From Wikipedia: The half-life of uranium-238 is about 4.47 billion years and that of uranium-235 is 704 million years

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